How did ancient Mesopotamian women deal with their boys going off to war?
Part 2 of the Gilgamesh Epic may give us some clues. Here we are introduced to Ninsun, Gilgamesh’s strong-willed mother. Ninsun systematically, and with a great deal of forethought and determination, did everything within her power to protect her son.
Perhaps you’ve never heard of Ninsun, but maybe you should. Her fierce intelligence and boldness marks her as a perhaps too often overlooked sexy feminist mother diva. Here’s her story of how she wrestled with difficult circumstances, and won:
The Epic says that, on learning that her son would be going to war, that first she got dressed up to go to church—to the temple of Shamash, the sun god:
Ninsun went into her room, she put on a dress becoming to her body, she put on jewels to make her breasts beautiful, she placed a tiara on her head and her skirts swept the ground.
In other places in the Gilgamesh Epic, there are passages suggesting that, in ancient Mesopotamian religion, one sign of your favor with the gods is the degree of beauty you possess. And so it may be that Ninsun, by dressing up, may be reminding Shamash that she has long been favored by him with beauty, and that she is still a woman of beauty and dignity, and wants his attention:
Then she went up to the altar of the Sun, standing upon the roof of the palace; she burnt incense and lifted her arms to Shamash as the smoke ascended.
Here we have her first gestures of devotion. It is a gorgeous scene to imagine: A beautiful, dignified woman, silent before the rising sun, standing high upon a roof overlooking an ancient city, raising her arms before her god as incense wafts its slow way to heaven.
Next, she prays:
O Shamash, why did you give this restless heart to Gilgamesh, my son; why did you give it? You have moved him and now he sets out on a long journey to the Land of Humaba to travel an unknown road and fight a strange battle.
Her prayer is striking in its boldness, directly challenging the god, and philosophically calling his goodness into question: Are you evil? Why did you make my son restless for battle? Do you mean to kill him, and take him from his mother?
This is a rather bold move on the part of a mortal, to stand before a god in one’s best clothes, emphasizing one’s beauty and dignity, and sassing the god and questioning his wisdom. It recalls numerous instances in the Bible in which characters, such as Moses, are rather brash with God, negotiating with him, and attempting to reason with him, as in this passage from Exodus (32.9-12):
And the Lord said unto Moses, I have seen this people and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people:
Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation.
And Moses besought the Lord his God, and said, Lord, why doth thy wrath wax hot against thy people, which thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power, and with a might hand?
Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, For mischief did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people.
Moses argued with God, and won (Exodus 32:14):
And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.
This is what Ninsun is doing with Shamash—she is a kind of Mesopotamian female Moses, wrestling in prayer with her god, and trying to secure his favor:
Therefore from the day that he goes till the day he returns, until he reaches the cedar forest, until he kills Humbaba and destroys the evil thing which you, Shamash, abhor, do not forget him; but let the dawn, Aya, your dear bride, remind you always, and when day is done give him to the wachman of the night to keep him from harm.
Ninsun walks Shamash through every step of her son’s travels, making sure he (the god) understands that his protection of Gilgamesh must extend from the start to the finish of his journey.
Ninsun must have ambivalence about Shamash’s attention span, for she also says to him, in essence: I know you might be thoughtless and forgetful, as men tend to be, so let your wife Aya keep reminding you to look after my son, Gilgamesh, and not forget him. And when you disappear at sunset, and go to sleep, make sure you appoint a watchman for Gilgamesh in the evening.
Ninsun, in short, is covering all of her bases.
After this prayer, she then seeks out Gilgamesh’s best friend Enkidu, who will be accompanying Gilgamesh on his journey. She is rather theatrical about drawing a commitment from Enkidu to look after Gilgamesh, for she brings him to her in the presence of a coterie of women, votaries, and priests. She declares in their presence that she regards Enkidu as her very own son, gives him an amulet to wear around his neck to recall his commitment to looking after Gilgamesh, and implies that if he brings Gilgamesh back safely, that Enkidu can have the pick of the females in her retinue. Here’s the passage:
“Strong Enkidu, you are not the child of my body, but I will receive you as my adopted son; you are my other child like the foundlings they bring to the temple. Serve Gilgamesh as a foundling serves the temple and the priestess who reared him. In the presence of my women, my votaries and hierophants, I declare it.” Then she placed the amulet for a pledge round his neck, and she said to him, “I entrust my son to you; bring him back to me safely.”
When one cannot act directly, and with direct material effect, one stages a theater of occasions for reducing anxiety. In this instance, Ninsun:
- dressed nice
- burned incense
- argued vigorously with her god
- covered with Shamash methodically all details of her son’s journey
- manipulated Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s friend, psychologically by declaring that he, an orphan, now had a mother
- theatrically declared her adopted motherhood of Enkidu before witnesses, including priests, giving it a sacred, unbreakable quality
- gave Enkidu an amulet to wear as a constant reminder of his committment to Gilgamesh
- implied that her coterie of court women would be available to Enkidu should he return with Gilgamesh safely home
What more could an ancient Mesopotamian woman, otherwise powerless over her son’s fate, do?
And since Gilgamesh did, indeed, return from his battle with Humbaba, we might say that Ninsun was one of the first powerful women in World Literature, for she wrestled in prayer with her god, boldly called into question the nature of the divine, manipulated the scene surrounding her son’s going to war, and won.
Ninsun didn’t attract the attention of Camille Paglia, in her classic survey of literary personae, Sexual Personae (1991), but Ninsun is a spiritual sister to one of Paglia’s subjects, the glamorous Egyptian sun-god worshiper, Nefertiti. Ninsun was ancient Mesopotamia’s Nefertiti, not set in plaster, but written upon clay, and I see her lineage moving out through time, to one of our contemporay American Ninsuns, Hillary Clinton—a woman also to be admired for her intelligence, cunning, and determination.